Over the past few days I’ve come up with two subjects I want to blog about, but I’m determined to answer some more questions first as promised.

Mike Reynolds had five good questions, so this time let’s address those.

1. The Second Book Syndrome: How does one avoid the trend of having a disappointing second book and what do these books typically lack in comparison to the debut novel (other than time spent in development)?

Time IS a crucial element. Most first books were written over the course of many months, if not years. And then when the book is contracted, it’s likely to include an expectation for a follow-up book in several months or up to a year at the most. That creates a pressure to write that usually is counter-productive. And pressure—for most writers—hampers creativity.

The other main obstacle is that often an author’s first novel is written out of a passion that may not be present in subsequent novels. An obvious solution for serious fiction writers is to have several red-hot ideas for books going at once. Not necessarily actively writing several books at once, but at least keeping a notebook on each one, adding tidbits as necessary to keep the fire going.

Interestingly, not all authors realize that when a novel is sold, they’re entering into a career of sorts. One truly gifted novelist I acquired told me (after writing eight books for us) that when she approached me with her first novel manuscript, she had no plans for future books. She was taken aback when we asked her what her next book was about and when could it be ready?

2. What are the Ingredients of a Great Lead Character?

The top three ingredients on my list are:
• A likeability that will cause the reader to identify with the lead character.
• The usual assortment of strengths and faults
• A tad quirky, but not TOO quirky.

What I don’t like in a lead character is genericness. I may be alone in this though, because I do see generic characters in CBA novels that sell well. Even so, I find it makes for a boring book.

3. The Supporting Cast: How do I surround my lead character with compelling co-stars?

Let the star of the book choose their co-stars. Imagine them with various sorts of characters and see how they react. Recently on Facebook I mentioned that I was having an argument with a character in a book I’m thinking of writing. She is a supporting character, but she doesn’t’ seem to know that. She introduced herself to me as Dixie Matlock. I told her that “Dixie” was okay, but “Matlock” was a TV lawyer and would have to go. She didn’t like that at all and she let me know about it no uncertain terms. From our brief exchange, I can see that Dixie will be fighting with the two lead characters for on-stage time throughout the book. As much I want to dislike Dixie, I realize that she has some sassiness that will add spice to the book—and perhaps even more—she’ll provide some good turns of the plot because she is so unlike the two leads.

In short, choose characters (or rather let your leads choose characters) who will act as counterpoints to the leads. And NO stereotypes. I may face this problem with Dixie. She may yet want to trot out all the sassy-lady stereotype traits. THAT argument is one I will insist on winning.

4. Not That Again: The most hackneyed plot lines you see and how to avoid them.

To be honest, it’s not the plot lines that are hackneyed, it’s the writing. I can take a common plot and love it, if the writing is good. But even if the most unique plot will bore me if the writing is bad. So concentrate on the writing and let the plot—whatever it is—happen.

5. The Cliff: How a promising start of a novel often loses its steam.

I do see plenty of manuscripts where the story starts well, but does lose steam eventually. Fortunately, it usually happens early, so I don’t waste a lot of time on a novel that goes nowhere. I think what happens is that first the novelist loses his or her steam and that simply results in a novel losing its steam. Part of the author’s job description is to keep his or her enthusiasm at a high pitch all the way through at least the first draft. Preferably, of course, through ALL drafts. But the first draft is crucial in capturing the story’s passion. At least it is for me. Other authors may find that it works best to add the passion later. Either way, I think a novel that has lost its steam is simply revealing an author who has lost his steam for the story. And the reader will likewise lose steam and close the book.

Next time we’ll answer Dana’s question and an exercise she is proposing. Stay tuned!

8 replies
  1. Rick Barry says:

    Thanks for taking time to comment, Nick. Although my current work in progress is becoming better (in my opinion, but in some others’ also) as I continue to comb out kinks and tighten each scene and sentence, a question still hanging out there is whether I should begin a sequel before this manuscript sells. After all, there’s no guarantee that any book will sell, so beginning the sequel before the first book is contracted could be time wasted if it doesn’t. Meanwhile, I do have an idea for a totally different stand-alone that fared very well when I introduced the concept as a series of short stories in a magazine.

    I still haven’t decided yet, but I’ll keep pondering this decision as I put to use some excellent advice a literary agent gave me for improving my current project.

  2. Janalyn Voigt says:

    I so appreciate your giving writers the benefit of your experience in this way. Thank you. I take this post as a reminder to keep my passion and creativity alive for each and every book.

  3. Jan Cline says:

    These are all great topics. I especially like the part of your answer that talks about new authors not realizing they are entering into a career when they sell a book. I have often wondered how many first time authors struggled with uncertainty about more books. The realization of a dream often uncovers another layer of the dream we hadn’t considered.
    Main character likability is something I cant wait to master. I sometimes prefer the unlikable!

  4. Dana says:

    I’ve been keeping book ideas in one notebook, so your suggestion to keep one notebook for EACH idea is a much better plan and will probably help me stay a bit more organized. But here is my problem…I will have this idea and I think it is great and so doable. I’ll write it down and then the next day I’ll think, “that was a really lame idea; what was I thinking?” I can’t tell if it was indeed a really lame idea or just some discouragement or negative self-talk creeping in. I wonder if others have talked themselves out of a really good story.

  5. Nick says:

    Rick, go for the one that you’re most passionate about.

    Thanks, Janalyn.

    Jan, sometimes lead characters can be unsympathetic. Two that come to mind are Scarlett O’Hara and Holden Caulfield.

    Dana, don’t discard new ideas so quickly. Sometimes you get just a line to write down. The next element (another line, a character, a plot) may not come until later. Just keep adding unless and until you KNOW the idea is a dead end.

  6. Lynn Dean says:

    Excellent post. Thanks!

    Playing off your first point on keeping a series strong (and Rick’s follow-up question), is there an advantage from the editor’s standpoint to know, from the first pitch, that an entire series is completed? If the storytelling is strong, I’d think this might allay scheduling concerns, but might the publisher prefer to have more input in the process?

  7. Nick says:

    Lynn, it doesn’t have to be completed, but many publishers do prefer a short series if you can do it. Just complete the first novel and do a synopsis for the sequels. Nowadays three seems to be a good number for series books. More than three and the sales sort of peter out.

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